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Playoffs, Punching and Passion: Matt Carkner's Unforgettable Influence in Ottawa

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Matt Carkner will be forever famous for his large contributions in multiple playoff series, but his legacy in the nation's capital was solidified by becoming an extremely important member of the community that he so badly wanted to give back to.

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A player’s contributions to his team and to the community are two vastly different things. On the ice, no goal goes unnoticed; no giveaways are swept under the rug. Fans, columnists and broadcasters analyze every play, and if you missed the game last night, it’s not at all difficult to get filled in on the studs and duds.

Outside of the rink, many times the important role a great deal of professional athletes choose to play in their city becomes second fiddle to the game and frequently goes unnoticed. But seldom does it go unappreciated.

At both ends of the spectrum, Matt Carkner flourished during his time with the Ottawa Senators.

Now, Carkner was never exactly a flashy player. But he knew what his function was on the team and he played it to the best of his abilities. Some would even say he excelled on the Senators’ blue line.

Carting 359 penalty minutes and taking part in 39 fights in 161 games, he was there to bring a physical presence and act as somewhat of an enforcer. But Carkner wasn’t a one-trick pony. Quite the opposite.

Playing predominantly on the third pairing during his four seasons with the Senators, the Winchester native was never a minus in the regular season and was able to chip in a bit offensively, especially in the 2009-10 season when he recorded a career-high 11 points.

Also, within the analytics community, he was seen as a rather valuable asset with an impressive 51.6% Corsi rating over his tenure in Ottawa.

And for some reason, he seemed to have a flair for the dramatic.

Carkner played a huge part in the two playoff series he was around for, producing numerous memorable moments. But three stick out the most.

A goal, a fight and an assist.

The first was in 2010. Pittsburgh. Game 5.

The Senators needed a win to stay alive in the series, as the Penguins held a 3-1 stranglehold and were poised to move on to the second round.

As it so happens, the first 100 minutes of the game solved nothing and both teams headed into the sixth frame looking for just one goal.

"I remember that game," said Carkner in an interview with Silver Seven. "It was a tough battle. I think everyone was just spent. We all played, that night, triple overtime so it’s never easy."

Seven minutes into the third overtime, Carkner took a slapshot from the point that glanced off of Matt Cooke’s hip and managed to squeak under the un-tucked arm of Marc-Andre Fleury.

"Basically I was just praying that I could get through that shift," said the now 35-year-old. "Fortunately, Alfie passed me the puck and it went in the net after I took a quick slap shot. That was quite a moment."

Alas, the Senators would lose in Game 6 two days later, but that won’t stop Carkner from reminiscing.

"That moment was obviously the highlight of my career. It’s one of those moments you always dream of as a kid, getting in the playoffs and scoring a big overtime goal to win the game."

Two years later, the script was changed, but Carkner was once again making a huge impact in the postseason.

During the first game of the Senators’ first-round matchup against the New York Rangers, it was clear the Blueshirts went into the series with a plan. That plan was obviously to get into the head of Ottawa’s best player.

"Me and Zenon Konopka were watching (Game 1)," said Carkner. "And we saw how (Brian) Boyle was trying to rough up our future Norris Trophy winner, at that time. Karlsson played a skilled game and they were trying to rough him up and we didn’t like that at all. The next game we were inserted to the lineup and we had a talk amongst ourselves."

Being the No. 8 seed, facing off against the Eastern Conference’s best team, the Senators knew the only way they would have a chance to win was if they didn’t back down.

The objective was simple: send a message.

It was evident in the warm-ups with Konopka circling around Boyle, attempting to intimidate him as the Rangers forward took part in a pre-game interview. But it became crystal clear once the puck dropped.

Two minutes into the game, Carkner made a beeline for Boyle.

"I didn’t know what I was going to do, to be honest with you," said Carkner. "The moment presented itself to hit him and I knew I wanted to try and start something."

Boyle wanted nothing to do with Carkner. It was plain to see he didn’t intend on answering the bell after repeatedly punching an uninterested Karlsson in the face during a scrum two nights before.

"He’s a big guy," said Carkner. "So I thought he might actually try to fight back, but that wasn’t the case. So emotions took over and I did what I did.

"The craziest thing about it was my teammates, they got a lot of energy from it. They were high-fiving me after the game and saying ‘that was unbelievable.’ I was just super excited that they pulled it together and killed off my penalty and they ended up winning the game."

After the smoke cleared, the veteran defenseman received a one-game suspension for the incident, but was back in the lineup for Game 4.

Now, we’ve already discussed the goal and the fight, so you might have guessed what’s coming next.

Going into the Game 4, the Senators were in dire need of a win. They were down 2-1 after losing the first of their two-game home stand and couldn’t afford to go back to Madison Square Garden on the brink of elimination.

They started the game rather poorly, though.

In the first six minutes, the Rangers went up 2-0 with goals from Anton Stralman and Ryan Callahan. As the night dragged on, Henrik Lundqvist was looking unbeatable as usual and the Senators’ hopes were fading.

Midway through the second period, Carkner took an ill-advised hooking penalty on Marc Staal as the momentum shifted even further in New York’s favour. But Ottawa would kill off the penalty. Just as Carkner was exiting the box, Craig Anderson made an enormous save and the puck bounced to Jason Spezza, who threw the puck down ice.

"I’m not the point guy," said Carkner. "I’m usually the shutdown guy and the physical presence, but the moment presented itself.

Racing into the Rangers’ end, Carkner made a shifty move on Ryan McDonagh, as if he were a solidified top-six forward, and passed it off to Milan Michalek who was streaking in on the right side. Michalek flipped a backhand over Lundqvist and just like that, it was a brand new hockey game

"I came back and I wanted to contribute," said Carkner. "I wanted to be a little bit of a difference maker.

"I came out of the penalty box and it wasn’t a real breakaway, the guys were catching me so I just stopped up and saw Michalek come through the middle. When he put it in the net it was kind of a surge of energy and it was a real exciting moment for me, too."

The Senators would complete the comeback with a game-tying goal off a point shot from Sergei Gonchar. Then three minutes into overtime, Kyle Turris tied the series with a rocket over the glove hand of Lundqvist.

Playing only 10 total playoff games with Ottawa, Carkner managed to create a plethora of memorable moments in a very short period of time. Of course, the Senators were never able to make a breakthrough and push on past the first round in both years, but the series could have been a heck of a lot less entertaining without Carkner’s knack for producing great theatre.

But after all the postseason glory and the career that came with it, the most important work he ever did might have been with a team he never even played on.

During the early stages of his career in Ottawa, like a lot of professional athletes, Carkner was looking to give back. He reached out to his agent, Larry Kelly, and soon after was set up with the Capital City Condors.

The Condors are a non-profit organization that consists of a family of special needs hockey teams around the Ottawa area and in Kitchener (they have teams in Kanata, Gloucester and Cambridge).

Jim Perkins, president of the Condors, says Carkner quickly established how seriously he intended to be involved with the team, which at the time, only consisted of 20-30 players. In the first couple weeks, he had bought every single player some new equipment.

"He comes to the rink and he’s got all these gloves so the kids could go to the tournament looking all the same," said Perkins. "He wanted to remember the kids’ names, so he made sure I got over right beside him and whisper the name of the kid in his ear so he could address each one of them as they came up."

With Carkner’s prominent presence and the public awareness it brought, the organization was able to grow into three teams in three separate cities. And they're always looking to expand into more communities.

Just last March, the Condors hosted the world’s largest ever hockey tournament for disabled players. The event brought 73 teams to the nation’s capital for a weekend of hockey and celebration.

Perkins cites Carkner’s impact when reflecting on the organization’s success.

"I don’t think Matt fully understands how much of an impact he had on the program," said Perkins. "I don’t think I would be overstating it to say he’s part of the reason why we’ve been able to exist."

During the summer of 2012, the Senators made it clear they wouldn’t be bringing Carkner back for another season. This made him a free agent starting in July and guaranteed to leave Ottawa.

"Matt kind of knew that he wasn’t going to be re-signed," said Perkins. "We didn’t know what to expect, really."

With Carkner on his way out, Perkins feared the organization’s future was in jeopardy. But to Carkner, leaving the Condors on their own wasn’t an option.

"I remember being over at his house on July 1 when all that was going down," said Perkins. "And I said ‘Carks, I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ and he goes ‘don’t worry, I promise I’ll leave you in better hands than what I ever had you in.’"

Carkner was determined to keep the relationship between the Senators and the Condors afloat. So he brought it up to a friend.

"When I left Ottawa," said Carkner. "I didn’t want the thing I was doing to die out - the kind of mentoring I was doing within the NHL team and the special needs team – so I talked to Kyle Turris about it.

"He’s like a part of the family now. He’s there as much as he can be and he’s done an incredible job continuing to be the honourary captain of the Condors."

Turris and wife Julie picked up right where Carkner and wife Kary left off. And as of last year, helping them have been Patrick Wiercioch and wife Kresson. Wiercioch even took a page out of Carkner’s book when he first joined.

"Kyle and Julie have just been unbelievably involved," said Perkins. "Patty got involved, too, this year. He got everyone gloves, just like Matt did, and a hockey bag so everyone could have matching hockey bags."

For the Turris and Wiercioch families, the Condors isn’t just charity work; it’s a part of their lives. Just like it was for the Carkner family.

During the Condors’ tournament in March, they all showed up for the big opening night, but to Perkins’ surprise, everyone was back the next morning for more.

"(The players) were all there on opening night," said Perkins. "Then the next day I walk out of a meeting into KRC and I look up - and they had played the night before - and I look up and there’s Erik (Condra) and his wife, and of course Kyle and Julie, Patty and Kresson, and they were all there with their strollers and little ones.

"They were watching our kids play and being fans. They were asking kids for their autographs and stuff like that. It’s unbelievable to watch the way the players and their families interact with the kids."

Carkner is now with the New York Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, as a player-coach, but even long past his days in Ottawa, his presence in special needs hockey has never been stronger.

During his time with New York’s NHL club in 2012, Carkner got involved with the Long Island Blues, another special needs hockey team. But when he was forced to leave for Bridgeport, just like Ottawa, he couldn’t let the Islanders’ presence within the Blues die out.

"Funny enough," said Carkner. "I did the same thing when I left Long Island with Thomas Hickey. He took over with the Long Island Blues and he’s doing the same program."

In Bridgeport, Carkner is once again involved in a similar program with the Southern Connecticut Storm.

On December 13, for his continual dedication to special needs hockey, Carkner was honoured with the American Special Hockey Association’s Inspiration Award before puck drop.

And it couldn’t have gone to someone more deserving.

"He was trying to find an area that he could get involved with," said Perkins. "And help out with the community because that’s just who he is. He’s just built that way."

Carkner’s on-ice moments entertained and delighted a fan base.

But his off-ice contributions changed lives.